Recently, a distraught family met with optometrist Dr. Susan Jong in hopes of pinpointing the source of their teenage daughter’s debilitating headaches.
“I was first stop;” says Jong, “but, if I didn’t find anything, the next stop was an MRI to rule out a brain tumor.”
During the exam, which detected no vision problems, the teenager mentioned how excited she was about the texting feature on her new smartphone. Jong asked the mother to track the volume of messages her daughter sent and read daily.
It was close to 300.
As it turned out, the daughter was lying on her bed, holding the cellphone over her head and texting.
With that information, Jong developed a treatment plan.
“First, she curbed the amount of texting,” Jong says, “but, second, she sat up and looked at the phone at the correct angle. Now, all of her headaches are gone.”
Many adults also suffer headaches, blurred vision, back, neck or shoulder pain after several hours working or playing on their digital devices. And, while the pain may be musculoskeletal, the cause is likely to be computer vision syndrome, also known as computer-induced eye strain.
“Our eye muscles cannot handle that constant refocusing (required) as computer pixels are constantly being refreshed,” explains Jong. “The focusing muscle inside the eye — the one that allows you to see things clearly — adjusts so fast that you are not even aware of it, but, it still gets fatigued.”
As your vision blurs, your body begins to compensate by shifting into awkward positions, which can result in muscle aches and joint pain.
And, while computer vision syndrome is a relatively new problem, it’s about as likely to go away as are our devices.
Pew Internet Project data indicates more than 80 percent of American adults use laptop and desktop computers, and 58 percent have a smartphone.
According to eMarketer research firm, adults typically spend more than five hours each day on non-voice mobile activities, including Internet use on phones and tablets.
And, that’s a conservative estimate. In 2009, a Council for Research Excellence study reported adults spend 8.5 hours on screen time.
In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated children ages 8 to 18 engage for 7.5 hours in entertainment media daily.
Because both youngsters and adults are high-volume users, Jong says computer vision syndrome affects all age groups equally.
While it may be one of the most common computer-age maladies, it may be one of the most under diagnosed.
Jong estimates one out of every three or four patients experiences eye strain. “A lot of people just don’t realize they have it,” she says.
At annual visits, many patients simply believe they need a prescription adjustment because they begin to have headaches and blurry vision.
“But when I check vision, their prescription hasn’t changed,” Jong says, “so that’s not the problem.
“What happens is they are on the computer for such prolonged periods. And, when they look up, the eye has to refocus in the distance, and there’s a lag time.”
The good news is that while eye strain can cause permanent damage that requires prescription correction, it can also be reversed by spending less time staring at computer screens.
And, Jong notes, not all devices are equally damaging. Brightly lit PCs, laptops and smartphones seem to cause the most problems. Reading devices that are backlit seem to be more closely related to books, not only in their content but their effect on the eyes.
“Even so, I tell all my patients to practice the 20/20/20 rule whether they’re looking at a (printed) book, a digital edition reader and especially a computer,” says Jong.